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“I Believe in Doing Religion, Not Talking It”

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Today we often take for granted outstanding hospital facilities and expert medical personnel. But if we traveled back in time to England and many other countries in the early 1800s we would have found a dramatically different situation: “In that era English hospitals were places of degradation and filth. The malodorous ‘hospital smell’ was literally nauseating to many and nurses usually drank heavily to dull their senses” (Mary Lewis Coakley, The Faith Behind the Famous: Florence Nightingale, ChristianityToday.com, Jan. 1, 1990). Hospitals were crowded with poor people who could not afford private physicians. Nurses were uneducated and untrained. Nonetheless those circumstances were about to undergo a significant transformation due to the work, service and dedication of one woman.

Born in 1820 to a wealthy English family, Florence Nightingale was expected to grow up and then enter the elite social circles of her day. By age 17 a suitor offered her a marriage proposal which she graciously declined. In doing so she simply felt God was calling her to a different life—one dedicated entirely to service as a nurse. In discussing this aspiration with her parents, they were soundly unsupportive. They thought a young lady of her social stature should not enter a profession, especially one viewed in that day as menial labor. 

Although Florence loved her parents, she felt strongly about pursuing what she believed was her divine calling. In 1850 her father reluctantly allowed her to train as a nurse at the Institute of Protestant Deaconesses’ in Kaiserwerth, Germany. Soon afterwards she obtained a nursing position at a hospital in London. Her efforts so impressed her employer that within a year she was promoted to superintendent. Florence worked diligently to improve nursing care while instituting sanitary procedures so as to diminish the spread of disease. 

Responding to a health crisis during the Crimean war

Shortly thereafter a major event occurred that would dramatically influence Florence’s life and work. War erupted between the Ottoman-Turkish and Russian empires in October 1853. The Britain Empire entered the war in March 1854 on behalf of the Turks and sent thousands of troops to the Crimean Peninsula on the Black Sea. Within months nearly 8,000 British soldiers had been admitted to military hospitals in the Ottoman capital of Constantinople. 

News reports began reaching the British public about appallingly deficient medical care of wounded soldiers. The Secretary of War asked Florence to lead a group of nurses to the area to help rectify the situation. Florence and 38 female nurses arrived there to discover wounded and ill soldiers languishing in horrifically unsanitary, inhumane and overcrowded conditions. Many men were unwashed and lying in filthy uniforms. Florence also found that shockingly, five of every six patients were dying from infectious diseases such as typhus and cholera.

She immediately had the hospital wards scrubbed from top to bottom. She also established standards for patient care including bathing, clean dressings, bed clothes and adequate food. Due to her efforts and those of her dedicated staff, the patient mortality rate fell significantly.

At war’s end in March 1856, Florence returned to Britain a national heroine. To encourage the cause of nursing improvement, she founded the “Nightingale Training School for Nurses” at St. Thomas Hospital in London with money donated by grateful British soldiers and private citizens. To further advance her views on nursing and hospital reform she published two books in 1859, which were translated into other languages. Subsequently, leaders in several nations contacted her requesting advice on upgrading hospital, nursing and sanitation issues.

Through her resolve and dedication, Florence was instrumental in profoundly improving hospital conditions. She also transformed the nursing profession so that it became an honorable and sought-after vocation. Today she is widely celebrated as the founder of modern nursing.

Following the example of Jesus Christ

Florence Nightingale recognized the critical need for ordinary people to be given safe and empathetic medical aid. She readily and humbly filled that need in earnest service to others and in sincere devotion to her Creator. She said, “If I could give you information of my life it would be to show how a woman of very ordinary ability has been led by God in strange and unaccustomed paths to do in His service what He has done in her. And if I could tell you all, you would see how God has done all and I nothing. I have worked hard, very hard, that is all; and I have never refused God anything.” She once told an assembly of nurses, “Christ is the author of our profession” (Mary Elizabeth O’Brien, “A Sacred Covenant: The Spiritual Ministry of Nursing,” 2008, P. 4). 

What can we learn from Florence’s story? It’s simply that as a dedicated follower of Jesus Christ, she did her best to reflect His example of service and sacrifice. We should strive to do the same. Indeed, by Jesus’ words and actions as a human being, He proved to be the greatest servant the world has ever known. His approach to serving others is summarized by these words to His disciples: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45 Mark 10:45For even the Son of man came not to be ministered to, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.
American King James Version×
). Jesus displayed selfless concern for people’s well-being and happiness (1 Peter 2:24 1 Peter 2:24Who his own self bore our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live to righteousness: by whose stripes you were healed.
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). He left behind an indelible example of unconditional love for His disciples by demonstrating that genuine service contains no self-centered implications or motivations (1 Corinthians 13:4-7 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 [4] Charity suffers long, and is kind; charity envies not; charity braggs not itself, is not puffed up, [5] Does not behave itself unseemly, seeks not her own, is not easily provoked, thinks no evil; [6] Rejoices not in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; [7] Bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
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).

Applying ourselves to heartfelt, practical service 

In this increasingly self-absorbed age we need to seek God in fervent prayer for His own love in order to truly serve people. His bounteous, divine love is in fact available to us through the power of His Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5 Romans 5:5And hope makes not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given to us.
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). How can we actively apply ourselves to heartfelt, practical service? We can do so in ways that may seem inconsequential. It might be doing work around the house without being asked or volunteering to assist a neighbor with a project. It could be providing a meal to a widow or helping clean her house. It might be sending a card, an e-mail or making a phone call to someone who is ill or lonesome. Sometimes just “being there” can be comforting to a person who is lonely, depressed or has suffered a setback. Florence Nightingale wrote about serving in small ways, “Never lose an opportunity of urging a practical beginning, however small, for it is wonderful how often in such matters the mustard seed germinates and roots itself.”

Jesus described those who assisted people in need as if they were helping Him. “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me” (Matthew 25:40 Matthew 25:40And the King shall answer and say to them, Truly I say to you, Inasmuch as you have done it to one of the least of these my brothers, you have done it to me.
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). The apostle James stated, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22 James 1:22But be you doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.
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). Florence Nightingale understood and lived by this principle. She said, “I believe in doing religion, not talking it.” 

Serving (which can often be behind-the-scenes) should become a way of life. “But when you do a kindness to someone, do it secretly—don’t tell your left hand what your right hand is doing. And your Father, who knows all secrets, will reward you” (Matthew 6:3-4 Matthew 6:3-4 [3] But when you do alms, let not your left hand know what your right hand does: [4] That your alms may be in secret: and your Father which sees in secret himself shall reward you openly.
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, The Living Bible). The apostle Paul highlighted the example of a Church member named Epaphras who quietly served people through zealous prayer (Colossians 4:12 Colossians 4:12 Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ, salutes you, always laboring fervently for you in prayers, that you may stand perfect and complete in all the will of God.
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). Praying for others is a vital spiritual benefit we can all render.

Being a fellow worker with God 

Florence Nightingale was willing to give up a comfortable life to enter a profession which many in her day considered menial. She felt deeply that bringing care and comfort to ill and hurting people was her God-given calling. In reflecting on her life of service she said, “To be a fellow worker with God is the highest aspiration of which we can conceive man capable.” 

Florence’s remarkable example is one which we can admire and seek to emulate. Yet even more importantly, we have the profound opportunity to imitate Jesus Christ who stands as the foremost model of one who wholeheartedly served. Let us therefore diligently seek the Eternal Father’s powerful help so His love flows through us in service to others. In doing so, we will follow His Son Jesus Christ’s perfect example. We can then also echo the words of Florence Nightingale who said, “I believe in doing religion, not talking it.” 

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